By Greg Moses
In its 1954 ruling against school segregation, the US Supreme Court made it the Constitutional business of the nation to care about the motivations of African American children.
Segregation, argued the court, was unfair to African American children, because the practice of separating blacks by law conveyed a sense that they were inferior to whites. And the sense of inferiority tended to damage a black child’s motivation to learn. On the basis of these particular considerations, the Court found that segregation was inherently unequal.
The wisdom of that ruling lies in its twin findings, that white superiority has effects worth fighting, and that a nation should be busy building institutions that encourage black children to learn, too.
De-segregation or integration was therefore prescribed by the Court as an antidote, because the larger effects of white superiority were deemed harmful to black children.
Fifty years later, if we wish to measure our progress by the criteria set forth in the text of the Brown decision; perhaps we should simply ask the broader questions. What have we done to counter the effects of white superiority and how have we re-organized our schools to serve the motivations of our African American children?
Has the black child today been liberated from the social effects of white superiority? Has the nation transformed its schools to uplift the black child’s motivational needs? I imagine several national responses to these questions, but I think that an honest report card would not place America’s efforts on the honor roll.
Overwhelmingly, I suspect these questions will mostly come as a surprise. You mean the Supreme Court was actually ruling against white superiority, in deference to a black child’s motivational needs? Not to “all children,” mind you, but to black children in particular, the Court was quite literally kneeling with sacred respect.
Where is that bronze statue? The Supreme Court Justice, in flowing robes kneeling to care, calling to black children, overtly, not embarrassed to be so publicly particular about the object of his (at the time) sacred concern? If we could carve that image and place it on the Washington mall, we would weep before it today.
Today, we have a mob of media images, chattering away about how any special attention paid to the needs of black children is simply a way of robbing (de-robing?) whites and catering to the black child’s “inferiority.” Reverse discrimination, special preferences, catering to minorities. These are the terms of chatter that would hum around our bronze monument were it set before our eyes in the marketplace of today’s ideas.
And where, for the past 50 years, have been the politicians who were brave enough to stand up and say, “I’m with the Supreme Court on this one. If elected I am going to get in the way of white superiority and kneel to the needs of the black child?” How many of us have demanded to hear that promise before we cast a vote?
But I don’t want to leave the impression that we have failed completely. National polls continue to show majority support for affirmative action “for blacks,” so long as the question is fairly put, without the loaded language of “preferences”, “special consideration”, or “quotas”. That is a fairly remarkable achievement for American public opinion given the money and mouth that has been put to work against affirmative action ever since it was first invented to enforce the moral dictates of integration, to fight against white power, and to respect the prerogatives of black citizens.
Yet even here, notice how the Supreme Court of 1954 was not embarrassed by its own “preferences” or “special consideration” of black children. If we have moved the Constitution since 1954, it seems we have moved it away from the great wisdom of Brown.
According to Pew Research, carefully asked questions about countering the effects of discrimination yield majority support for affirmative action, even among whites. But it surprised me to see that such questions drew the more positive responses from lower education levels. Hostility to affirmative action among whites tends to grow with education.
Contrary to stereotypes about prejudice and poor whites, more hostility can be found among whites who have “some college”, “upper income”, and who are “male.” Half of whites with High School education or below believe not only that affirmative action is good, but that it is also fair. In sum, the more elite the white person, apparently the more hostile he usually is to the principles of Brown. The data raises a question about the quality of leadership that is likely to come from white elites.
Of course, there is no one more elite than a US Supreme Court Justice. Which makes it all the more marvelous to recall how in 1954 the most privileged powers on earth opened a door that we have not yet dared to fully enter.
And finally, a focus on the broader questions of Brown leads us away from integration for integration’s sake, and away from traps that confuse integration with cultural assimilation. When we ask the questions, who is protecting black students from white power and catering to their motivational needs, we may very well answer black schools, black colleges, and black teachers. Only the most cynical strategist, therefore, would use the Brown principles to attack the very institutions and people who set the standards for black education. Neither do the standards set forth in Brown lend support to demoralizing agendas of “assimilation.”
To revisit the text of the Brown decision after 50 years is to read a record of unusually wise principles shamefully ignored or strategically misconstrued. There is nothing to prevent us from returning to that broader wisdom today.
This article was written in 2004 for Alternet, where an edited version appeared..